Chris Nell wasn’t sure what to expect this season.
Once he started to adjust to college hockey and earned an opportunity to play in games, his goaltending began to flourish.
Entering this weekend’s home series against the University of Alaska, he hasn’t lost. He’s 5-0-1 in six games, helping the Falcons to records of 12-3-3 overall and 8-1-1 in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.
The BG-Alaska series is Friday and Saturday nights at 7:07 in the Ice Arena.
“You always want to play well, but I knew this would be a learning year,” Nell said. “Being able to compete has helped me with the start that I’ve had.”
The addition of Nell gave BG three goalies as he joined junior Tommy Burke and sophomore Tomas Sholl.
It would have been reasonable to assume Nell would be the No. 3 goalie, while adjusting to college hockey and college life. Perhaps, he’d play in a handful of games and serve as the backup in others.
Prior to the season, BG coach Chris Bergeron said each goalie would start twice during BG’s first six games, and Nell won both of his starts. His debut was a 20-save shutout at Alabama-Huntsville Oct. 17. Eight days later, he had 30 saves in a 5-4 win at Clarkson.
“We’re not surprised. He’s doing what we thought he would do in terms of wrapping his arms around the opportunity,” Bergeron said. “He came here to play. He didn’t come here to watch. We knew he had a lot of potential.”
Although the Falcons’ goaltending derby remains in full swing, Nell has started once in each of BG’s last four series.
Burke has played well, and Sholl stopped 34 shots Sunday in a 4-1 win at Robert Morris in his first start since Oct. 31.
The 6-foot-1, 178-pound Nell finally qualified for the NCAA and WCHA statistical leaders after making 34 saves Saturday in a 2-2 against Robert Morris at Toledo’s Fifth Third Field. Goalies must play at least a third of their team’s minutes to qualify.
Nell had one other shutout, making 26 saves Dec. 6 in a 5-0 win at Northern Michigan.
“I like the confidence and the calmness he has, and he uses his size,” Bergeron said. “I believe the players in front of him are getting the same confidence with him in the net.”
Nell, Burke and Sholl push each other to improve in practice each day. The three are friends off the ice.
“They’ve helped me a long the way, and they’ve led me through the first part of the season,” Nell said. “They’re great guys to look up to, and with the help of the coaching staff, I’ve been able to come in and play.
“I was hoping to play as much as I could and put up some good numbers, just find a way into the starting rotation. I’ve definitely had to step up my work ethic to match theirs. You can never take a practice off with the way we compete among the three of us.”
Against Clarkson, the Golden Knights scored three straight goals to close within 5-4 in the third period, but Nell’s 13 saves in the third period helped BG preserve the lead.
“I started feeling comfortable after the Clarkson game.” Nell said. “It was kind of a bumpy game towards the end, but being able to battle through that, that’s what helped.
“It’s never bad to start your career with a shutout. After the first two games, I realized I’d be able to compete and play at this level.”
Nell came to BG after two seasons with the Chicago Steel in the United States (Junior) Hockey League.
“The early practices definitely were a struggle,” Nell said. “All of the shots were a lot harder, and I was getting frustrated not being able to make that many saves right away.
“It was an adjustment to how hard the shots were, the speed of the shots, the intensity of practices as compared to juniors which are more laid back. Here, if you make a mistake, you’re going to hear about it. The intensity of the practices caught me off guard.”
Nell played three seasons of high school hockey at Notre Dame Academy in his hometown of Green Bay, Wis., before going to the USHL as a high school senior. He had a 1.58 goals-against and a .923 save percentage in 30 games in his final season at ND.
Nell had a difficult adjustment in his first season in the USHL, his first away from home. He turned 18 in September that fall.
“I was going away to school where you don’t know anyone … I missed close to 50 days of school that year and you’re always on the road for hockey,” Nell said. “That was a big transition in my life.
“I was homesick, but the guys and the coaching staff really helped me. Wisconsin high school hockey is good, but the jump to (the USHL), every player there can play the game. It was intimidating at first. But as the year went on, I gained more confidence.”
Nell was the Steel’s backup goalie during the 2012-13 season, posting a 3.46 goals-against and .894 save percentage in 25 games — statistics that were far from impressive.
Yet, Nell’s play still caught the eye of the Falcon coaching staff that season. He committed to the Falcons in February 2013.
“Chris is an athlete,” Bergeron said. “We saw some physical things that were a great starting point, and then to hear how he’s wired and what his approach is every day, both on and off the ice, you take a chance on a person, a young guy, and that’s what it was.
“We knew if his starting point was that first year in Chicago as a high school senior, where could he be in four years with his daily approach?” Bergeron added. “We really liked the way he was wired and we really liked his daily approach. “When we did our digging on him, everything came back outstanding. You add in the competition here, now he’s starting to play at a very top level.”
Nell was Chicago’s No. 1 goalie last season with a 3.18 goals-against and a .910 save percentage in 43 games.
“My first year at Chicago was a learning experience that really helped me last year,” Nell said. “I wasn’t playing every night that first year. It was more of a wondering game when I was going to play. It taught me to be patient, and when you get your opportunity, run with it.”
Although Nell committed to BG in February 2013, he could have waited until last season to make his college choice. He just turned 20 in September.
BG was one of the only schools to show interest in Nell.
“We seriously considered that,” Nell said of delaying his college choice. “As a family, we weighed all of the options of staying in the USHL, committing to Bowling Green or waiting for other offers. When I came here and met the staff and saw everything, I fell in love with Bowling Green.”
Now, he’s sharing the No. 1 goaltending spot on a team that is ranked 11th nationally and contending for a league championship barely halfway through his first season of college hockey.
He’s majoring in business and had a 3.25 grade-point average during the fall semester. He hasn’t decided on what specialty he will pursue, but he’s considering marketing with a minor in finance.
“When I’m playing well, I’m playing aggressive and tracking the puck well, not getting myself into bad positions, controlling my rebounds,” Nell said. “I’m trying to keep everything simple and be in the right spots, which will allows me to use my size to my advantage.”